Hong Kong Opines on Democracy in China

This post continued on the theme of comparing South China Morning Post with Sing Tao Daily.  Yesterday's post was on The Hong Kong Chief Executive Election.  Today's post is about the Hong Kong University Public Opiniion Programme annual June 4 survey results.

The SCMP article is credited to Dikky Sinn and entitled Rising sympathy for Tiananmen students.

The number of Hong Kong residents calling for vindication of the Tiananmen Square protesters has reached the highest point since the handover, a survey revealed yesterday.  Tapping public opinion on the June 4 crackdown for the 13th year, the University of Hong Kong poll found that 56 per cent supported such vindication, while 62 per cent said Beijing had been wrong in the way it handled the mass protest. 

The survey of 1,001 respondents, conducted between May 21 and May 24, showed 46 per cent believed the protesting students had done the right thing, while 18 per cent felt they had been wrong.

Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of the university's Public Opinion Programme, said views on the bloody crackdown had become settled in recent years, with people sympathising with the students and criticising the central government.  "It seems that the people of Hong Kong are wishing for a revision of the official stand in order to take away the historical burden which stands between Hong Kong and mainland China," he said.

Respondents, meanwhile, were optimistic about human rights on the mainland.  Seventy-nine per cent believed conditions had improved since the 1989 protests, while 68 per cent expected them to improve over the next three years.  Nineteen per cent of respondents said the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organises the annual candlelight vigil in memory of those killed at Tiananmen

The HKU POP survey results were also mentioned in Sing Tao.  However, I am going to translate an op-ed piece by Chow Chun-ho, a senior lecturer in the Geography Department at Baptist University.  The article is entitled China Needs To Develop Economically First and appears in the June 1 issue of Sing Tao.  It does not mention the HKU POP poll at all.

Many discussants believe that China should pursue the path towards democracy, meaning that China should develop democracy first in its overall development, or else it will not be accepted or respected by western socieities.  Those who advocated this first were the western countries, for this has been the concept promoted by the western countries led by the United States and the United Kingdom over the past two or three decades.

It is not surprising that some people will unthinkingly accept this, especially in a western-worshipping place like Hong Kong.  Some people may have doubts, but they will still promote the idea for various reasons.

But for most people who look plainly at things without wearing the color-tinted glasses of the west, the most urgent priority for the Third World is economic development to raise the standard of living of the populace, as opposed to urgently developing western-style one-person-one-vote democracy.

Looking at the first Asian country to have democracy -- for the common people of the Philippines, do they want the right to vote or improvements in their lives?  What has the right to vote for the president and the legislators brought for them?  Many Filipinos may not be able to provide the answer.

The western countries want to promote democracy in the Third World reasons that include the following.  First, some westerners believe that democracy is the most important value.  It is applicable regardless of the state of development of any country.  This is idealistic expression.  They don't understand the actual situation in the Third World.  They don't know that it is pointless to promote democracy in under-developed countries.  Having something in form does not do the people any good.  This is the "Let them eat cake" error.

Secondly, some powerful individual top decision-makers in the western countries know that promoting democracy in Third World countries will stagnate their economic development so that they cannot break away from the economic control of the western world or compete for resources and markets with the western nations.  At the same time, when a Third World country holds a democratic election, it will be easier for the west to indirectly influence or control such a country, through either aiding or attacking the political parties or politicians, or interfering with legislation.  Such games cannot be pulled off in a totalitarian Third World country.  So why wouldn't the west want to play the role of saviour to promote the universal value of democracy and accomplish both of the above?

When the western nations demand Hong Kong to take the path to democracy, the above considerations apply.  When the Chinese think about whether China needs to develop western-style democracy or develop its economy, the answer should be obvious.

Thinking about the 60 years after the Second World War, the Four Little Dragons of Asia achieved economic miracles and caught the world's attention  Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea grew economically and laid down firm foundations between the 1950's and 1980's.  During these three to four decades, all four places did not have western-style democracy!  And the only two countries that had classical western-style democracy -- India and Philippines -- were economic messes.

After economic reform began in China after 1978, the economy grew rapidly and the standard of living for the people grew year after year.  This country has gotten better and this shows that the path was correct.  But there are still 200 million people living in poverty, and certain inland provinces remain unbelievably impoverished.  The country has to invest large amounts of money to develop those places.

I personally feel that China ought to focus on the economy for the next two decades.  Stability should override everything else for economic development.  The fruits of the economic development should be brought to the inland provinces so that the next generation can become well-off.  Then we can talk about the development of democracy.

Deng Xiaoping was very successful with the economic reform using the "crossing the river one step at a time, looking for the rocks to step on."  If political reform is to happen, the same "crossing the river one step at a time" should also be done gradually.  For example, it is said that the officials are corrupt today.  In the 1980's, Chen Yun had already pointed out if corruption is not stopped, the country and party are both finished.  But the problem continued to get worse as officials oppress the people until there may come a rebellion.

The inequality of wealth is getting more severe.  Dismissed workers cannot find a livelihood.  These things may lead to social disturbances.  All of these troublesome problems need to be seriously handled, but political reform is not the only way to solve them.  Although the internal reforms of the Chinese Communist Party are imperfect, they can still solve some of these problems.

Certain people in the western world are insistent on promoting democracy in China, but they have ulterior motives.  They may know that promoting democracy when the conditions are not ripe may lead to chaos and a weakening of the organizational ability of the government.  When overseas Chinese agree with such talk, they need to recognize the nature of the arguments and not become someone else's mouthpiece unwittingly.

The connection between the two pieces above lies in a HKU POP survey result that the SCMP does not discuss.  The question is: Which do you think China needs more: economic or democratic development? (see HKU POP 1993-2000 archive and 2001-2005).

Year Economic Same Democratic
1993 52% 31% 14%
1994 44% 33% 18%
1995 40% 34% 19%
1996 42% 29% 22%
1997 55% 24% 17%
1998 54% 21% 18%
1999 54% 27% 15%
2000 50% 28% 16%
2001 58% na 15%
2002 47% na 16%
2003 46% na 17%
2004 50% na 16%
2005 46% na 19%

While the Hong Kong people would like to see the vindication of June 4 and so on in China, when asked whether China should focus on economic or democratic development, the answer has always been the economy is ahead of democracy, over all these years.

Of course, it is a false choice between either economic or democratic development.  There is nothing in theory that says that the two are mutually exclusive.  There is nothing in theory that says both cannot occur at the same time.  But there is also nothing that says that democracy guarantees economic development since plenty of historical counterexamples can be furnished.  

So it comes down to a bet.  On one hand, with the Communist Party at the helm, there has been steady incremental growth over a couple of decades.  The standard of living has improved for most Chinese citizens.  It is probable that this trend will continue under the same political system.  If the past twenty years was nothing but four five-year plans pocketed with The Great Leap Forward and other man-made disasters, the opinions would surely be different.  But there is a non-ignorable track record here.

On the other hand, if you have instant democracy, you may elect a bunch of clowns who engage in fistfights in Congress every day; or you may elect a president who figures that the way to grab power is to start a war in the name of national honor or one who plunders the national treasury for himself.  Of course, things may also work out for the best.  It is a highly uncertain bet at this point.  What would you bet on?  Don't answer that question yet; just read on and you may get your chance later.

Another relevant HKU POP survey question is: Do you think Hong Kong people should put more effort on instigating development in China's economy or democracy?

Year Economic Same Democratic
1993 40% 44% 12%
1994 40% 37% 17%
1995 40% 35% 19%
1996 37% 36% 17%
1997 48% 28% 19%
1998 45% 26% 18%
1999 50% 26% 17%
2000 43% 32% 17%
2001 50% na 16%
2002 39% na 17%
2003 41% na 28%
2004 44% na 24%
2005 43% na 24%

If this is the stated preference for Hong Kong people, then do they practice what they think?  Certainly, they don't march in the streets for economic development in China.  And whether Hong Kong people do anything for economic development in China or not, the next question is why is the media discourse dominated by the issue of democracy in China?  Why won't the media spend as much time an space talking about how Hong Kong people can or should help or have helped economic development in China?  Why do the media focus on how much money the Chinese tourists bring to Hong Kong?  How about how much money Hong Kong can bring to Ningxia, Gansu or Guizhou?  You can read about one of those underpublicized Hong Kong-based projects in today's other post The Ten Million Dollar Bentley, but I assert that far too little has been said.  At least, it is nowhere near the proportion indicated by the opinion polls.

Of course, this whole exercise about looking at HKU POP survey data is quite pointless.  The relevant question is indeed: 

Which do you think China needs more: economic or democratic development?  

But the relevant respondents are not Hong Kong residents.  And not Americans, Europeans, Japanese, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organizaiton, United Nations, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.  The relevant respondents should be the people of China (of which Hong Kong is only a small fraction in terms of population size), because they are the ones who have to live with the consequences (as opposed to some blogger banging on his keyboard from the comfort of his home in Hong Kong or New York City).  How do you think they will answer?  And if they prefer 'economics' over 'democracy', will you ignore their answers and decide they really want the latter anyway?  And what kind of democracy would that be?